Origins: the genesis of romance
We should begin at the beginning.
We should start with the very word ‘romance’: it derives from the Old French roman
, which was the name given by the educated inhabitants of early medieval France to the vernacular language they spoke every day, the dialect of provincial Latin which would one day become modern French.1
A ‘romance’ was a literary work which was written in the romans
language, rather than in Latin, the language of scholarship and the Church. Serious works of theology were written in Latin: but romans
was good enough for the songs and stories of Roland, Charlemagne and the other warrior-heroes of old France, and it was these works that became the first romances
The rise of the heroic romance as a literary genre in twelfth-century France coincided with the appearance of the aristocratic cultural ideal of fin’amor
, ‘fine’ or ‘courtly’ love, which postulated the then almost unheard-of idea that, under the right conditions, love between men and women could potentially be a morally or spiritually ennobling force.2
The development of both the romance as a literary genre, and of fin’amor
as a cultural practice, were encouraged by Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of England and France: she and her eldest daughter Marie acted as patrons to important early romance authors such as Chrétien de Troyes and (probably) Marie de France, while simultaneously helping to spread the ideals of fin’amor
across the royal courts of Western Europe.3
The same ideals of love were reflected in the works of the romance-writers whom they patronized, and so thorough did the identification of this new code of courtship with this new form of writing eventually become that, when we wish to refer to intense and ennobling love-relationships today, we no longer speak of fin’amor
: we refer, instead, to ‘romantic love’.
The literary romances which flourished at the courts of Eleanor and Marie, and later elsewhere in Europe, were not only
love stories – they were also stories of war, magic and adventure – but the importance that they attributed to their love-plots set them apart from the older heroic epics and chansons de geste
upon which they drew.4 The Song of Roland
, for example, which dates from about 1100, is a story about aristocratic chivalric warriors similar to the heroes of later romances, but they are definitely fighters, not lovers: the relationships that matter most to them are the bonds of loyalty which tie them to their comrades and their king, there are no significant female characters, and women seldom even merit a mention amidst all the heroic bloodshed. A century later, however, the focus had shifted: in the romances of Chrétien, Marie and their successors, personal relationships could be as important as battlefields, and knights are as much concerned to win the favour of their ladies as the approval of their feudal overlords. This combination of courtly love stories with magical high adventure proved so enduringly popular that, for the next 500 years, a single genre – ‘romance’ – served simultaneously as Western Europe’s preferred form of both. Pure and perfect love was ‘romantic’; but so were supernatural events, or incredible feats of arms. ‘Romantic love’ went alongside ‘romantic heroism’ and ‘romantic enchantment’, linked so inseparably that, when Don Quixote decides to become a knight errant like the heroes of his favourite romances, he concludes that not only must he be an invincible warrior who inhabits a world of magic and monsters, he must also have a beautiful and virtuous maiden with whom he is perfectly in love, on the assumption that the former must naturally imply the latter. Thus, when we consider the modern literature of supernatural-themed romance fiction, our first question should not be how stories of love and the supernatural came to coexist within the same genre; rather, we should investigate how it came to pass that, after five centuries of unity, they ever came to be separated.
The unravelling of the medieval romance tradition took place over several generations. The first element to disappear was its reliance upon the supernatural, which Cervantes mocked in Don Quixote
(1605), reflecting the increasing scepticism regarding the reality of supernatural forces which was then taking root amongst the educated elites who read and wrote romances: and the influential mid-seventeenth-century romances of Madeleine de Scudéry, such as Artamène
, made no use of magical or supernatural incidents.5
Seventeenth-century romance-writers still preferred their heroes and heroines to be larger-than-life figures living in far-off times and places, perfect in love, and superhuman in war; but, by the eighteenth century, tolerance for even this level of ‘romantic’ heroism had started to wane.6
Early novels such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
(1719) and Richardson’s Pamela
(1740) achieved lasting popularity and fame throughout Europe by recounting the loves and adventures, not of morally perfect aristocratic heroes and heroines living in a fantastical version of the past, but of flawed, ordinary people living in a recognizable, realistic present; and, in their wake, the genre of romance came increasingly to be dismissed as suitable only for the ignorant poor, who were thought too credulous to understand the difference between the pointless fantasies favoured by earlier, more superstitious centuries and the realistic, educational novels by which they had now come to be displaced.7
It was in this context that the love story, the adventure story and the supernatural ‘wonder tale’ first started to come adrift from one another, after centuries of being united within the capacious boundaries of the old romance form; for the novel defined itself against the romance, establishing its cultural credibility by eschewing the less naturalistic elements of the tradition which it aspired to replace. Widely criticized for its lack of realism, the romance passed into cultural eclipse, from which it has never fully emerged.
Despite the decline of the old romance form, however, the love story flourished during the eighteenth century, to the extent that ‘novel’ and ‘love story’ became almost synonymous terms. The success of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), and Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), established a template that would be followed by many other English novelists over the following decades: that a novel told the story of one or more young people, and the various difficulties that they had to navigate on their way to (hopefully) securing a suitable marriage with the partner of their choice. These difficulties might be as minor as family disapproval, or as extreme as abduction by rival suitors, but they generally remained personal and domestic in scale; unlike their literary predecessors in earlier centuries, the protagonists of such novels generally did not have to contend with wars, shipwrecks, disasters or mysterious acts of God.
Both the pre-modern romance and the early English novel were thus important way-points in the development of modern romance fiction. The romance first established love as a worthy theme for literature, but postulated it as very much an all-or-nothing affair: characters tended to fall in love instantly and totally, and if their love was reciprocated then only physical barriers could suffice to keep them apart and thus prolong the narrative. The early novel developed the possibility of telling a love story without such plot devices, in which the obstacles that would-be lovers needed to overcome were social, emotional and psychological rather than physical: Richardson’s Pamela
, in particular, has been singled out by Modleski as an important prototype of the modern romance, a judgement in which she has been followed by Engler and Regis.8
Despite their emphasis on love and marriage, however, few eighteenth-century courtship novels are particularly ‘romantic’ in the modern sense of the word, and there are good reasons why, today, we refer to highly emotionally charged love relationships as ‘romances’ rather than ‘novels’. The eighteenth-century novel tradition inaugurated by the works of Fielding, Richardson and their contemporaries generally prioritized good sense and social responsibility over grand passion, and often went to some lengths to demonstrate that an overly ‘romantic’ view of the world, and of love, could lead young people – especially young women – very dangerously astray.9
As I have discussed, the romance form fell out of fashion in the early years of the eighteenth century, displaced by the rising popularity of the novel. Its re-emergence began towards the century’s end, as part of that resurgence of interest in all things medieval which is known today as the Gothic revival; and it was during the heyday of the Gothic revival in art and literature, when works referring to themselves as ‘romances’ began once more to be published and read in English, that the entanglement of what we now call ‘the Gothic’ and ‘the romantic’ first began in earnest.
Gothic/romance 1: Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen
When we go looking for the origins of genres such as ‘Gothic fiction’ or ‘romance fiction’, we must be wary of anachronism. If we take the hallmark of ‘Gothic fiction’ to be a preoccupation with fearsome events and/or supernatural phenomena, and the hallmark of ‘romance fiction’ to be a story that revolves around the development of a love relationship between two characters, then both must be thousands of years old: many examples of each could be found, for example, in the mythology of ancient Greece. But the fact that the conceptual categories of ‘Gothic fiction’ and ‘romance fiction’ are very much newer than this, and only started to be used by readers, writers, booksellers and publishers in the 1790s and the 1920s respectively, should give us pause. Love and fear have always been written about, but they have not always had literary genres to call their own; those emerged only at specific points in history, when the right cultural and commercial conditions were in place to call them forth.
Of course, new genres do not emerge out of nowhere; and when the first authors in a given genre begin to map out new fictional territory, they inevitably draw heavily upon the literature which has come before. When the style of fiction which we now call ‘Gothic’ first emerged as a recognizable genre at the end of the eighteenth century, its earliest authors drew upon older works such as Macbeth and Paradise Lost in order to develop a literary vocabulary with which to depict scenes of supernatural terror: and, as a result, such works can now seem rather Gothic when viewed in retrospect, as readers have become used to seeing their effects and motifs reproduced and recycled in Gothic fictional contexts. In much the same way, when the romance genre emerged in the early twentieth century, its pioneers sought out literary templates in the works of earlier authors such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, so that when they are read today, novels such as Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice often strike their readers as being, in the modern sense of the word, ‘romantic’. But Austen did not sit down to write ‘a romance’ when she wrote Pride and Prejudice, any more than Shakespeare was attempting to write a Gothic melodrama when he penned Macbeth: they understood themselves to be writing ‘a novel’ and ‘a tragedy’, respectively. Thus, in this chapter, when I map out the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century roots of the modern romance, my aim is not to make claims for the genre as a trans-historical category of romance fiction, pre-dating its own naming by over a hundred years: rather, I hope to trace the literary genealogy which led to, and ultimately made possible, the rise of the modern romance, in order to demonstrate the extent to which the pre-history of the romance is entangled with the history of the Gothic.
As a literary genre, the Gothic novel pre-dates the romance novel by over a century; and while novels about love, courtship and marriage proliferated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concept of a ‘romance novel’, as we now understand it, was then unknown. Indeed, for much of this period, the word ‘romance’ did not mean ‘love story’: instead, it referred to those works that imitated the romance tradition of the seventeenth century, and especially to that genre of fiction which we now call the ‘Gothic novel’. Although confusing for modern readers, to whom the phrase ‘Gothic romance’ is likely to suggest ‘a love story with suspense or horror elements’ rather than ‘an adventure story with a medieval or early modern setting’ (which is what it would have been understood to mean in around 1790), the very change in meaning which the word has undergone over the last two centuries points towards the extent to which the genres of Gothic and romance fiction, apparently dissimilar today, in fact share a common generic history. The Gothic romance of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was mother to them both, forming a crucial stepping-stone between the obsolete traditions of the medieval and early modern romance and the genre fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The Gothic novel originated as a self-conscious attempt to reinvent the pre-modern genre of romance, in a form that would be acceptable to late eighteenth-century audiences: indeed, for the first generation of Gothic novelists, the word ‘Gothic’ simply meant ‘medieval’.10
(The word derived from the Goths, the ancient inhabitants of northern Europe; after the fall of Rome, Gothic culture was thought to have become dominant in Europe, leading eighteenth-century writers to refer to the medieval period as a ‘Gothic age’.) Many of the very early Gothic novelists, such as Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve and William Hutchinson, were quite explicit about their ambition to revive these older cultural forms: Walpole described his pioneering ‘Gothic story’, The Castle of Otranto
(1764), as ‘blend[ing] the two kinds of Romance, the ancient and the modern’, Reeve asserted that The Old English Baron
(1777) was written ‘to unite the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient Romance and modern Novel’, and wrote a critical defence of the ‘ancient’ romance form, The Progress of Romance
(1785), to defend her literary practices, and Hutchinson’s odd and largely forgotten early Gothic novel, The Hermitage
(1772), contains long passages celebrating the vanished glories of medieval culture.11
These works, and those that followed them, often described themselves as ‘romances’ rather than ‘novels’, signposting to potential readers that these were stories which broke from many of the conventions of the eighteenth-century novel form: they made use of historical rather than contemporary settings, sometimes featured supernatural or seemingly supernatural events, and often employed simplified, larger-than-life characters.12
A reader in the 1780s who chose to read Gothic ‘romances’ could expect to find much more action, magic and violence in her fiction than if she had chosen to read ‘novels’ instead; but what she would probably not
expect to find was a greater emphasis on love. Most early Gothic romances did feature love plots, but not to any greater extent than mainstream eighteenth-century fiction, and few of them could really be described as being ‘love stories’. However, when love relationships did arise in Gothic romances, they tended to be purer and simpler than those found in contemporary non-Gothic fiction; in accordance with their idealized presentation of the past, they often featured perfect lovers, perfectly in love, rather than the more pragmatic and less ‘romantic’ portrayals of such relationships common in the mainstream novels of the day.13
Increasingly popular from the 1780s onwards, especially with female readers and writers, the ‘Gothic romance’ experienced its real breakthrough in the 1790s, with the run...